191. Der Freischütz (Weber)

  • Romantische Oper in 3 acts
  • By Carl Maria von Weber
  • Libretto: Friedrich Kind
  • First performed: Schauspielhaus Berlin, 18 June 1821

SETTING: Bohemia, shortly after the end of the Thirty Years’ War (mid-17th century)

CHARACTERS: PRINCE OTTOKAR (baritone); CUNO, head ranger (bass); AGATHE, his daughter (soprano); ÄNNCHEN, a young relative (soprano); MAX (tenor) and CASPAR (bass), two young foresters serving under him; SAMIEL, the Black Huntsman (spoken); HERMIT (bass); KILIAN, a peasant (bass)

ORIGINAL CAST: Gottlieb Rebenstein as Ottokar; Carl Wauer as Cuno; Heinrich Blume as Kaspar; Heinrich Stümer as Max; Joseph Hillebrand as Samiel; Johann Georg Gern as the Hermit; August Wiedermann as Kilian; Caroline Seidler as Agathe; Johanna Eunike as Ännchen


Weber – opera composer, director, conductor, and critic – is seen as the link between Mozart (his cousin-in-law) and Wagner (who called Der Freischütz the most German of all operas, and its composer the most German of all composers).

Der Freischütz is a Singspiel, the traditional German spoken play-cum-opera. For its first audiences, Aldrich writes, the Singspiel was “a return to an old and native form of German opera that had been crowded out by the importations from Italy and France”. But Weber expanded what a Singspiel could do.

Just as the wicked Kaspar mixes shattered church windows, lead, quicksilver, hoopoe and lynx eyes in his crucible to create his magic bullets, so Der Freischütz is the crucible in which 19th century Germanic opera is made.

From this picturesque folktale of peasant life, shooting competitions, hermits, and evil things lurking in the woods come Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and the music dramas of Bayreuth, as well as the operas of Marschner and Lortzing.

Der Freischütz, Warrack and West declared, marked “a turning-point in the history of German opera”. For years, Weber had dreamt of a truly German opera that could hold its own against the Italians; it would be a dramatic whole: “a self-sufficient work of art in which all elements, contributed by the arts in collaboration, merge into one another and are moulded together in a certain way and dissolve to form a new world,” he wrote in 1816, reviewing E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Undine. Music, scene painting, and drama would flow together seamlessly and inseparably. French opera was already moving in this direction with tragédie lyrique and proto-grand opéra, and Wagner would seek to accomplish it with his Gesamtkunstwerk.

Weber’s reforming zeal also applied to the practical business of opera performance. Warrack & West note that as opera director in Prague and Dresden, Weber recruited singers as members of an ensemble rather than stars; revised rehearsal practice (reading libretti before rehearsals so as to impress the drama upon the singers); reformed the chorus and orchestra; and took a practical interest in all theatrical matters from the scenery and lighting to the library catalogue.

In Freischütz, Weber made the recitative freer, less formal and more dramatic. The overture used motives and melodies from the opera, one of the first to do so. (At that time, most overtures were unconnected to the opera; Rossini’s could be swapped from opera to opera.) The orchestra, more expressive and colorful, Aldrich states, had “a share in the unfolding and exposition of the dramatic fabric such as few before him had given… Students of his work will perceive the increased potency that he imparted to the wood wind choir, the keen sense of color-values with which he used the oboe and the clarinet; and they will find in his employment of the horn a new and delightful means of picturesque and romantic expression.” These all point the way to Wagner.

So do the elements of German opera Weber established here and in Euryanthe. Weber & West list the supernatural, Nature, medievalism, popular settings, melodies arising from folk-song, and stories based on folk legend. “Musically there was an increased tendency towards continuity, and to structures based on motive and whole scenes, and with this came increased depth in the portrayal of character and psychology.”

Weber’s opera takes place in 17th century Bohemia, shortly after the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The story is based on the legend of a 16th century hunter named Bartoch, famous for his accuracy; rumor said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for magic bullets that never missed their target, but he was saved at last by a monk. Here, two hunters – the bass Kaspar (villain) and the tenor Max (hero) – are embroiled with infernal bullets.

Weber strikes the folkish note right from the start. Act I is set near an inn in the forest. Trials have just been held for the next day’s shooting competition. Max’s happiness depends on victory; if he wins, he will succeed Kuno as head forester and marry his daughter Agathe. But to everyone’s surprise, Max has been disgraced; all his shots went astray, and he was easily beaten by a peasant. Perhaps his bullets were cursed, Kaspar suggests; to make sure of victory, he should make a magic bullet: a Freikugel. If Max meets him in the Wolf’s Glen at midnight, he will learn how the secret. Kaspar, though, is a desperate enemy; he has allied himself with the devil, and his term runs out the next day. But if Max can take his place…

The Introduction (No. 1: ‘ Victoria, Victoria!’) consists of a lively chorus celebrating Kilian’s victory; the March of the Peasants, played by an onstage band of Bohemian mountaineers; and the peasants’ mockery of Max, with a nickering chorus on two notes.

The Trio and Chorus (No. 2: ‘O diese Sonne!’) is splendid; Max is sunk in gloom, Cuno tries to console him, while Kaspar insinuates; the piece develops into an ensemble, with choruses of hunters and villagers. The peasants waltz into the inn, leaving Max alone onstage. Now comes the tenor’s big scene (No. 4: ‘Durch die Wälder, durch die Auen‘), an intensely dramatic monologue fluidly moving between aria and recit: despair (recit); nostalgia for happy hours in woods and meadows, blazing away at anything that moved, then returning to his Agathe (moderato). Watched by the demon Samiel, Max wonders if he is forsaken by God (recit); but thinking of Agathe gives him new hope; he will defy the fates (andante). But all is vain; life seems miserable, and there is no God, only blind chance; he must despair (allegro). Kaspar’s drinking song (No. 4: ‘Hier im ird’schen Jammerthal’) is a ferocious toast to earthly pleasures, almost demonic in its vigour.

The act closes with his revenge aria (No. 5: ‘Schweig’, schweig’! damit dich Niemand warnt’), a blackly menacing piece.

Act II, scene 1: In the forester’s house (a former hunting-lodge), Agathe has nearly been brained by a falling portrait. Prone to nervous fears, she sees the collapsing painting as an omen of doom – but her relation Ännchen tries to cheer her up. When Max returns, the girls are horrified to learn he will visit the Wolf’s Glen that night.

The scene is a filler between the menace of the first act and the terrors of the next scene: dramatically meagre, but contains some charming music. The duet of the two cousins (No. 6: ‘ Schelm, halt’ fest!’) contrasts Agathe’s melancholy (long-held notes) with Ännchen’s naïveté (chirruping semiquavers). (The two young women may be modelled on the sisters in Goethe’s Werther.) Ännchen’s arietta (No. 7: ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gezogen’) is a prettily tuneful polonaise, the soubrette’s light-hearted aria. More impressive is Agathe’s grand scene (No. 8: ‘Leise, leise, fromme Weise’). The soprano pours her heart out to the starlit sky; she prays as daylight dies (an exquisite, dreamy adagio); wonders why Max is delayed (andante); sees him approach (agitato); then almost delirious happiness as she looks forward to the wedding day (vivace con fuoco).

The scene closes with a trio (No. 9: ‘Wie? Was? Entsetzen!’): , Max resolute. the girls frightened and begging him not to go.

Act II, scene 2: The Wolf’s Glen (Wolfsschlucht) scene is the most celebrated section of Freischütz: an extraordinary mixture of instrumental power and stage spectacle to pleasantly horrify the audience. We are in a weird, moonlit craggy glen, surrounded by high mountains; owls perch on blasted trees; a storm is brewing; fell voices are on the air; and Kaspar is doing unspeakable things with a skull and an eagle’s wing. The next quarter-hour contains the famous forging of the bullets, black magic rituals, ghostly apparitions, and the ride of the Wild Hunt, culminating in the manifestation of the devil. Weber shows himself a wizard of the orchestra, as Wagner or Rimsky-Korsakov would be; from the pit of his orchestra, he conjures up night-birds, black boars, hurricanes, rattling wheels and cracking whips, spectral riders, and lightning storms. No wonder the hapless Max collapses.

Abate and Parker call this scene “one of the first proto-cinematic moments in opera… It mixes spoken dialogue with Melodram (speaking over orchestral music), singing and instrumental scenic music into a multi-section number that includes instructions for marvellous and, in 1821, more or less unrealisable special effects”.

But day follows the terrors of the night. Act III opens in Agathe’s chamber, on the morning of what she believes will be her wedding day. The girl is disturbed by a nightmare: she dreamt she was a white dove; Max aimed at her, and she fell; but the white dove vanished; she was Agathe again; and a great black bird of prey lay wounded. Ännchen tries to comfort her, but worse is to come: instead of a bridal wreath, Agathe has been sent a funeral wreath – a dreadful omen.

Gott! Ein Todekranz!

Agathe’s cavatina (No. 12: ‘Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle‘) is one of the finest pieces in the opera; in her bridal dress, the young woman prays for divine guidance – a short but lovely adagio prayer. Weber wrote Ännchen’s Romance and Song (No. 13: ‘Einst träumte meiner sel’gen Base’) at the request of the singer; the Romance parodies the ghostly elements (the growling monster with eyes of fire and clanking chains turned out to be Nero the watchdog); in the aria, a sprightly allegro, Ännchen encourages her cousin to be merry on her wedding day.

Tanz der Brautjungern um Agathe

The chorus of bridesmaids (No. 14: ‘Wir winden dir den Jungfernkranz‘) became a folksong. So did the famous hunters’ chorus (No. 15: ‘Was gleicht wohl auf Erden’), a magnificent, sonorous ensemble.

The opera’s final scene takes place in a romantic landscape where Prince Ottokar and his court have come to watch the shooting championships. Max is about to fire at a white dove. ‘Don’t shoot, Max!’ cries Agnes. ‘I am the dove!’ But Max fires. At that instant, both Agathe and Kaspar collapse. All assume the girl is dead, but it was only her nerves. (Terribly contrived.)

Kaspar, however, has been killed by the devil’s seventh bullet; he curses God, and dies. Max confesses his part in the forging of the bullets; the furious Prince sentences him to lifelong banishment, but a wise old Hermit commutes it to a year. After that time, Max will be able to marry his Agathe.

The finale, nearly 20 minutes long, shows Weber broadening the structures of the Singspiel in search of dramatic continuity. It contains choral laments, a concertato rejoicing at Agathe’s recovery, Caspar’s death scene, and the Hermit’s solemn appearance (adagio maestoso).

The premiere of Der Freischütz in 1821 was an extraordinary success. That date, Aldrich (1904) wrote, was “the first decisive triumph of the romantic movement in German music” and the birth of native German opera, “based on [the people’s] own nature and characteristics and corresponding to [their] own native ideals in music and in poetry”. The opera was hailed as a national success, and Weber was several times led onstage in triumph. Some present were hostile – among them Hoffmann and the composers Spohr, Zelter (a “colossal nothing created out of nothing”), and Tieck (“the most unmusical racket ever put on the stage”) – but the opera was soon performed in all the German theatres. Paris and London saw it in 1824; Berlioz adapted it for the Paris Opéra in 1841. (See m’colleague Phil’s commentary on that version.) By 1830, it had been staged throughout Europe, and in Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney by 1850.

Today, though, it is seldom performed outside German-speaking countries. For many years, Der Freischütz was the German national opera; up to World War I, it was the most performed opera there. Today, it is only the twelfth.


SUGGESTED RECORDINGS

  • Listen to: Jochum 1959; Kleiber 1973.
  • Watch:

WORKS CONSULTED

Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera: The Last 400 Years, Penguin Books 2015

Richard Aldrich, essay on Der Freischütz, G. Schirmer, Inc., New York, 1904

Edward J. Dent, The Rise of Romantic Opera, ed. Winton Dean, Cambridge University Press, 1976

Roger Parker (ed.), The Oxford History of Opera, Oxford University Press, 1996

John Warrack & Ewan West, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997

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